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Wild Florida

American alligators keep Myakka's wetlands healthy

Deep Hole at Myakka's Wilderness Preserve is an important dry season refuge.

American alligators have a crucial role in keeping wetland habitats healthy, and alter habitats in ways that benefit other species. (Photo by Miri Hardy)
American alligators have a crucial role in keeping wetland habitats healthy, and alter habitats in ways that benefit other species. (Photo by Miri Hardy)
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Myakka River State Park, which provides critical habitat for diverse wildlife, is renowned for its American alligators. Nearly driven to extinction in the 1950 by habitat loss and hunting, these iconic Florida natives are the largest reptiles in North America. Critical members of Myakka’s ecosystem, they depend on wetlands. And Myakka's wetlands depend on them.

Wetlands provide many crucial services to the environment and the public (including water purification, flood control and erosion prevention), and alligators help keep them healthy. As apex predators, at the top of the food chain, they limit the numbers of animals that might otherwise overtax marsh vegetation. Considered ecosystem engineers, the “gator holes” adult alligators create and expand through the years stay full of water, not only during the summer (our wet season) but also in the winter, when rains stop. This provides vital water, as well as habitat, for them, and many other species. 

Read more: Wild Florida: Myakka counts record bird species

Winter is a great time to observe alligators — from a safe distance — when these cold-blooded reptiles often come out of the water to control their body temperature by basking in the sun. And to view them, nothing compares to a visit to Myakka's Wilderness Preserve, a 7,500-acre tract seemingly frozen in time, where you'll likely find many alligators at the aptly named Deep Hole. 

Deep Hole is a 131-foot deep sinkhole at the Lower Myakka Lake, which is mostly obscured during the summer. But during the winter, when waters recede, fish migrate into the hole, concentrating them in a relatively confined area. And alligators, which like an easy meal, congregate on its banks, creating quite a spectacle to behold.

To maintain its wilderness quality, and to benefit reclusive wildlife, visitation to this part of the park is limited to 30 people a day, with no motor vehicles, or even bikes, permitted. Day permits are issued on a first-come-first-serves basis at the Ranger Station each morning and are in high demand. So if you're keen to take the 2.5-mile walk on the wild side, down to Deep Hole, an early start is highly recommended.

Friends of Myakka River exists to support Myakka River State Park and the Wild and Scenic Myakka River. Together, we're protecting and sharing Myakka's Magic, to the benefit of future generations and our own.



Miri Hardy

Miri Hardy is the first executive director of Friends of Myakka River, a nonprofit that supports Myakka River State Park. She’s been a Sarasota resident since 2014 and holds a doctorate in social psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. Miri is happiest exploring wild Florida, often on her bike, and capturing its beauty with her camera.

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